‘Things don’t have to be this way’ (Part 2)

by John Marks, Samuel Grove

The second part of a discussion with Dr John Marks on the critical theory of Michel Foucault.

First published: 05 February, 2013 | Category: Activism, Philosophy and Theory, The Right, Vision/Strategy

In a new monthly series of interviews entitled ‘On Theory’ we will be profiling the work of major contemporary critical theorists.  Lined up are interviews on Alain Badiou, Gilles Deleuze and Judith Butler among others.  This is Part 2 of our first instalment in which Dr John Marks sat down with Samuel Grove to discuss the critical theory of Michel Foucault.   The discussion moved onto the implications of Foucault’s work for resistance, his insights in the neoliberal economy and the colonisation of entrepreneurial values.  Part 1 is available here. 

I want to turn now to broad questions of resistance that concern us on the left.  The way Foucault draws attention to the ways in which particular institutions specify individuals—marking them off as different, as separate and so on—these are practices of divide and rule ultimately aren’t they? In which case showing how these identities are contingent and not natural—removes a potential barrier to a more inclusive collectivity.  Would you agree? 

Yes, and this general ethos was evident in his own political activism, which ran in parallel to his writing career.  He was, quite simply, always on the side of those whom he perceived, at a certain point in history, to be unjustly treated, those caught in the ‘headlights’ of power if you want.  In his published work he used this political intuition as a starting point for analyses of how we think collectively.  I think that it is particularly in this respect that Foucault’s work provides inspiration and nourishment for the left. 

Can you clarify what you mean by the phrase ‘how we think collectively’? 

For Foucault, we are thinking collectively all the time, producing ways of viewing the world and behaving in it.  Because this thought is collective and impersonal, it is rarely interrogated: more often than not it goes unchallenged as ‘reality’, common sense, or generalised ‘progress’.  One of Foucault’s key insights in this respect is to constantly remind us that our ways of behaving and thinking are radically historical.  A rationale that was coherent and ‘reasonable’ for a society in the past will often now appear to us absurd and brutal: he incites us to look at current society with this in mind.  As Foucault once put it, the act of doing criticism is about making ‘harder those acts which are now too easy’. 

Presumably it is also about interrogating how we think collectively about ourselves? 

Quite.  Foucault’s work has a particular relevance for the left today in large part because of his focus on what might be called the ‘politics of subjectivity’.  This phrase evokes, of course, what many would see as one of the major tactical errors of the left in the last forty years or so.  The argument goes something like this: the economic argument has been conceded to the right and the left has turned its attention to the politics of identity.  This general argument may well have some validity, but I don’t think it works as an analysis of Foucault’s contribution.  He was interested in subjectivity insofar as this is the fine grain with which power and politics work.  Such an understanding of the politics of subjectivity is a particularly useful tool when we are trying to gain some critical purchase on forms of power that insinuate and ingratiate themselves into the fabric of our subjectivity. 

In which case can I pin you down precisely on this question of economics? How does Foucault contribute to our understanding of the neoliberal subject? 

I’ve already alluded to Foucault’s lectures from the late 1970s on the then new phenomenon of neoliberalism.  They raise some pertinent questions that a less quiescent media in Britain might pose to the current Tory-dominated coalition.  In these lectures Foucault emphasised that contemporary neoliberalism is not simply a revival of older forms of liberalism.  The central ‘stake’ of this form of politics that emerges in the late 1970s is the conviction that the principle of a competitive market economy has a transformative social potential: the key question is how far this process of marketisation should go.  One response, of course, would be to say that it can only go so far, that other values and rationales should come into play.  Another response is to say that broadly, it can never go far enough, that neoliberalism is a sort of permanent revolution.  The current Conservative party leadership put the idea about that they did not subscribe to the latter approach in the course of the last election campaign: they valued things like ‘community’ and the ‘selfless’ contribution of voluntary work.

The Conservatives claimed to oppose neoliberalism’s permanent revolution? 

Yes.  They claimed to stand for a form of conservatism that was against both the dependency culture of the welfare state and the narrow individualism and market monopolies of free-market politics.  This was the rationale for the much-derided ‘Big Society’ idea, and they gained a good deal of currency by contrasting this to what they portrayed as the ‘nanny-state’ managerialism of New Labour.  In fact, the Tory-dominated coalition have in many ways used the so-called ‘politics of austerity’ to pursue neoliberalism in its most radical form (the route of permanent revolution). 

This is where Foucault’s discussion of the concept of ‘human capital’ in his late 1970s lectures is very useful.  In the neoliberal paradigm paid work is no longer ‘labour’, but rather, for each individual, the capacity to transform a certain amount of capital (skills, qualifications, personal qualities, health, etc.) into an income, or an ‘earnings stream’ as Foucault puts it.  This may sound like a fairly technical shift in definition, but it actually lies at the heart of a profound shift that has been hugely disabling for the left. 

Because it represents a shift away from Marxist conceptions of labour? 

A Marxist analysis of labour broadly begins from the premise that there is some kind of alienation in the way in which the workers sells his or her labour-power.  Neoliberalism effectively says that each individual must invest his or her human capital wisely in order to gain admission to the income potential of global capital.  We are not, as workers, building any kind of common or collective future: rather the neoliberal future exists as a quasi-religious projected state and we must perform the correct spiritual exercises to gain access to it. 

In this sense workers come to view their work like managers or investors? 

We become worker-entrepreneurs.  We also have an important role to play as consumer-entrepreneurs.  This has been perhaps most clearly expressed in the rationale behind the huge hike in British university fees.  On one level, this measure has been explained in terms of a ‘tough decision’ made on cutting the deficit.  However, at the same time, the shift has been explained quite explicitly and quite unashamedly in terms of human capital.  The debt that students take on is not conceived of as a ‘burden’ as such, but as a loan of human capital on which a well-qualified graduate will theoretically receive a good return.  What is more – and again the government has been quite explicit about this – indebted students will act like so many individual fund-holders.  Rather than universities ‘complacently’ accepting government funding, this funding will now be in the hands of individual students and the ‘consumer’/entrepreneurial decisions that they make about where to invest their human capital.  The idea is that this will make universities more ‘responsive’ to students’ needs.  

...and students need to pay off their debt—which in effect subordinates them further to the whims of capital. 

Yes.  Of course.  On a more speculative note, it is somewhat alarming to think about the issue of human capital in the context of biological phenomena such as genetics and old age.  As Foucault noted back in 1979, scientific advances in the field of genetics were already revealing the hereditary nature of our biological profiles: our innate intellectual and physical capacities, as well as the genetic markers indicating a future susceptibility to debilitating or life-threatening conditions.  Will it increasingly be the case that we as individuals will have to take on the responsibility of managing and deploying this genetic human capital in the best way possible? Will we be in some way culpable or indebted if we don’t? This raises the spectre of new form of eugenics.  More immediately, I think we can already see the logic of human capital being directed at older people who no longer work and who may be ill in their old age.  It seems that, as a social category, these people are being identified as a group that has exhausted its human capital: they are, in short, seen as a drain on resources.  Where will this line of thought take ultimately take us? 

Quite.  It’s utterly terrifying.  But then this line of thought will only take us there if we let it. 

Foucault is quite often frustratingly agnostic about the action we should take in the face of these developments, but for me it is the precise and provocative nature of his insights that are useful to us in making our own political decisions.  Analysis and critique is the lifeblood of the left, but it has become a rather unfashionable activity in recent years.  Foucault’s work is a particularly valuable resource in this respect, in that it constitutes an accessible and provocative incitement to think for ourselves. 

Dr John Marks completed his PhD on the work of Foucault at Nottingham Trent University in 1993. He has worked as a Lecturer in French Studies at Loughborough University from 1992 to 1998, and subsequently as a Reader in French Studies and then Critical Theory at Nottingham Trent University. He was appointed Associate Professor (Reader) in French Studies at the University of Nottingham in 2007. 

Useful reading

Stephen J. Ball, Foucault, Power, and Education (Routledge Key Ideas in Education) (Routledge 2013)

Michel Foucault, Foucault Live: Interviews, 1966-84 (Semiotext(e)/Foreign Agents 1996)

Michel Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the Collège de France 1978-1979(Palgrave 2008)

Gary Gutting, Foucault: A Very Short Introduction (OUP 2005)

Mark G. E. Kelly, The Political Philosophy of Michel Foucault (Routledge 2008).

Maurizio Lazzarato, The Making of Indebted Man: Essay on the Neoliberal Condition (trans. Joshua David Jordan) (Semiotext(e)/Intervention Series 2012)

David Macey, Michel Foucault (Critical Lives) (Reaktion Books 2004)

Todd May, The Philosophy of Foucault (Acumen 2006) 

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